As we’ve recently elected a President who has been praised (and, by others, chastised) for his appreciation of nuance, it might be a good time for a few words on that underappreciated mark of punctuation, the semicolon. Underappreciated, at least, in the United States, according to The New Yorker magazine critic Louis Menand — who maintains that “there’s an animus against the semicolon in American journalism because it adds nuance. It makes the reader think that the relationship between two independent clauses is more complex.”
The semicolon, notes the English writer Trevor Butterworth, is indeed “a pause for ambiguity, complexity, and nuance.” As such, I would argue, it conveys not only the writer’s comfortableness with these qualities, but the (flattering) assumption that his or her readers will be equally comfortable with them.
And the “pause” part is meaningful, too. (Butterworth playfully entitles his essay “Pause Celebre.”) Semicolons impart rhythm and cadence; they function to make writing more elegant — more graceful and balanced. They suit those who, in Butterworth’s delicious rendering, want to “woo with words.”